Spotlight on the ITU #1: Why human rights defenders should care about the ITU

15 Mar 2017

By Richard Wingfield

Ask a human rights defender what the key international forums for engaging on issues of human rights are, and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) is unlikely to be at the top of the list. In fact, it’s unlikely to be on the list at all.

This is perhaps understandable. For much of its existence, the ITU (established in 1865 and, since 1947, a specialised agency of the UN) has functioned as a rather dull technical standards-setting body, allocating radio-frequency bands across regions, managing the database of satellite orbits, and setting international standards for things like the transmission of television signals and international telephone routing – activities whose relationship to human rights is, at most, indirect. In recent years, however, the ITU has become increasingly involved in issues related to internet governance and online communications; and the link between its decisions and the human rights of end-users has become correspondingly more explicit.

In 2014, for instance, the ITU adopted a resolution calling on member states “to take all necessary measures to combat counterfeit telecommunication/ICT devices”, including mobile phones – which are now crucial means for many to exercise their rights to freedom of expression, to associate and to assemble peacefully. The resolution, as originally worded, could easily have been used by governments to legitimise mass shutdowns of unlicensed electronic equipment, with no consideration for user access, as was attempted in Kenya in 2011. It was only the incorporation of an amendment proposed by the Netherlands, reiterating “the importance of maintaining user connectivity”, which averted this possibility. It is worth emphasising that many people, particularly in the global South, can only afford counterfeit phones; so even if the resolution, as originally worded, had been implemented in good faith – and its only result was to reduce the availability of such devices – it could also have risked interfering with the human rights of many users and potential users.

Another issue which should be of concern to human rights defenders relates to digital object architecture (DOA), a form of information and data management which some ITU member states are proposing for adoption as a universal standard. While it has some benefits as an effective document repository mechanism, DOA, if applied universally, would facilitate the real-time surveillance and tracking of all devices and individuals connected to the internet, potentially giving governments the ability to access a central database of every connected device and who uses them. Not only would this, in many cases, amount to a breach of the right to privacy in and of itself, in a considerable number of countries it could also put the physical security of human rights defenders and unpopular minority groups at risk. It is therefore unsurprising, but nonetheless concerning, that countries with poor human rights records, such as Russia and Saudi Arabia, are the loudest proponents of DOA being adopted at the ITU.

An important point to emphasise here is that decisions made at the ITU often carry more weight than those made in other forums. The ITU is widely respected as an objective standards-setting body; so while its decisions may be technically non-binding, they are influential, and can therefore have significant consequences for, and impacts on, human rights.

What does this mean in practice? For one thing, a government seeking to restrict human rights could easily try to justify the adoption of rights-restricting legislation and policies by arguing that they are only adopting ITU standards. But even in the absence of bad intentions, risks remain. Many states do not have the institutional capacity or policy expertise to develop their own national standards, and often directly implement ITU standards into their own national frameworks with little consideration given to the implications. In this way, laws and policies which negatively impact human rights could be unwittingly implemented.

Despite the fact that decisions made by the ITU can have serious and wide-ranging implications for human rights, it remains almost entirely closed to input and scrutiny from civil society. Until January 2017 and the adoption of a new “access to information” policy, minutes, proposals, amendments and even outcomes of ITU meetings were not publicly available – with only the ITU’s recommendations published. Even this “access to information” is limited, and conditional; to access any given document, for example, you need the stated permission of the person named as its author.

None of this is an excuse for inaction by civil society. There are several things we can, and should, be doing right now: monitoring policy discussions at the ITU; raising awareness about the risks to human rights mentioned in this article; pushing for more transparent processes at the ITU; and preparing engagement strategies for the Plenipotentiary in 2018, where we will have a chance to influence the resolutions adopted and the standards set.

Over the course of this series, we’ll be taking a closer look at the lTU: how it functions, the thematic and technological issues on which it is working, and how civil society can engage. 

Read the next entry in the series here.

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Between now and the International Telecommunications Union (ITU)’s quadrennial conference (known as the “Plenipotentiary”) at the end of 2018, Global Partners Digital will be working to raise awareness of how the ITU’s activities have an impact on human rights, and to support civil society engagement on these issues at the ITU itself. Building on our work at the ITU’s World Conference on International Telecommunications in 2012, as well as at the last Plenipotentiary in 2014, we hope to facilitate greater civil society involvement at the Plenipotentiary in 2018. This blog post is the first in a series to help explain what the ITU is and how it functions, the issues on which it is working, and how civil society can engage. If you are interested in our work on this issue, and would like to be involved, please get in touch with us at richard@gp-digital.org.